Kansas City Royals: Holland, Rosenthal, relief comebacks, and stubbornness

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 14: Greg Holland #56 of the Kansas City Royals throws in the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Kauffman Stadium on August 14, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 14: Greg Holland #56 of the Kansas City Royals throws in the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Kauffman Stadium on August 14, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

It’s one thing to be a beast. It’s another to cross the line between hard-nosed and bull-headed. Ask Kansas City Royals relievers Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal.

Baseball players can ignore the line between hard-nosed and bull-headed just as profoundly as athletes in other games. They won’t always admit it but they love it when their teammates respect them as beasts. And their teammates won’t always admit to wondering whether that kind of beastliness equals sacrificing careers for the sake of immediate and transient glory.

There in the Kansas City Royals’ spring camp are a pair of relief pitchers once thought to be among the best in the business now trying to determine if they have careers left at all, and to what extent. Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal. Once looking at major free agency paydays, now in camp on minor league deals hoping there’s something left.

Both Holland and Rosenthal had those big paydays rudely thrown to one side by Tommy John surgery. The Royals’ new manager, Mike Matheny, who happens to be Rosenthal’s old manager from St. Louis, speaks airily to The Athletic‘s Andy McCullough of the pair providing some prospective “veteran leadership. We’ve got a lot of young talent that can benefit from being around guys who have actually done it on the back end of the pen.”

More Royals. Bubba Starling trying to hang on. light

Matheny spoke of bullpen experience in the deepest pressure cookers, of course. What he might not have mentioned was whether Holland and Rosenthal can provide another side of veteran leadership. The side you learn the hard way when your spirit was willing, your body told your spirit where to shove it, and your spirit didn’t listen when it should have.

Part of the Royals’ vaunted H-D-H bullpen (Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrrera, whose initials dovetailed perfectly with the legendary Motown Records songwriting team), Holland learned his pitching elbow had issues during fall 2014. He said no to surgery and hoped a winter’s rest would take care of that business.

He spent 2015 pitching despite continuing pain. He nailed 32 saves until his season ended on September 18. Then-manager Ned Yost told Holland he was going to Davis to close in the postseason, when the Royals won the World Series.

Then Holland opted for Tommy John surgery. He sat out 2016 recovering, signed a single-season deal with the Colorado Rockies, rolled a 1.62 ERA in the season’s first half (good enough for an All-Star berth), but fell to exhaustion and the Colorado altitude in the second half. Signed and cut by the Cardinals in 2018. Signed, but cut last August by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“He’s fearless,” Royals general manager Drayton Moore once said. “He attacks. And he takes the ball. He’s a warrior. Doesn’t quit, doesn’t make excuses. He’s highly accountable. I can go on and on talking about Greg Holland.” It’s to wonder what Moore now thinks of the warrior who ignored his elbow, became a non-factor in the 2015 triumph, and now hopes he can stay healthy enough to pitch even like an imitation of his old self.

Rosenthal saved 121 as a Cardinal and had a 0.69 ERA in 23 postseason gigs. He may be remembered best for his laser fastball and for the gig he didn’t get but should have gotten in the Game Five of the 2014 National League Championship Series.

There was rusty Michael Wacha (now a New York Met) on the mound for the Cardinals. There stood two on and one out for the San Francisco Giants in a three-all tie in the bottom of the ninth. There sat Matheny with no thought at all of bringing Rosenthal in because, you know, this wasn’t a save situation, and all Wacha had to do was get past Travis Ishikawa and the Cardinals would have a shot at breaking the tie and winning in the tenth inning.

Wacha threw only two strikes out of nine pitches before facing Ishikawa. On 2-0, Ishikawa hit one onto Levi’s Landing in AT&T Park. Game, set, Giants pennant, and the Madison Bumgarner World Series show to follow.

After a few up and down seasons to follow, Rosenthal, too, underwent Tommy John surgery and missed 2018 recovering. Who knows how often he, too, took the ball in pain before his elbow ordered him to give it a short rest now or a long rest permanently? Then he returned for 2019 and disaster.

He signed with the Washington Nationals and cratered. Fastball still hitting triple digits but disobeying orders otherwise. Released in June, signed by the Detroit Tigers about a week later. Eight runs, eleven walks against twelve strikeouts in nine innings across ten games later, sent to the minors and released. Fastball still disobeying orders. Too many doubts occupying land in his head.

Kansas City Royals
Kansas City Royals /

Kansas City Royals

Holland and Rosenthal have deals loaded with incentives if they make the Royals, McCullough says, adding that both have looked impressive enough to be “close to locks for Opening Day.”  Holland has seven strikeouts and no walks in five appearances despite surrendering three runs; Rosenthal—who had an embarrassing 15.26 walks-per-nine 2019 rate—struck out eight in his first four spring outings without a walk.

They’re not the first pitchers who bulled their way from the top to the bottom of the deck by ignoring their arms, pitching through injuries, or trying to fix something that wasn’t broken and getting broken anyway. The Hall of (That’s a) Shame’s wing for broken relief wings is long enough, but a few notices should suffice here:

Jack Banta—Sidewinder with a deceptive delivery; came up from the minors to stay in 1949 and nail the Brooklyn Dodgers’ final-day pennant with three and a third shutout relief, as the Dodgers came back to beat the Philadelhpia Phillies. Spring 1950: what turned out rotator cuff damage when baseball people barely knew it existed, pitched through it, career shot before it ever got off the ground.

Dick Radatz—There was a reason Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle named him the Monster. For three seasons (1962-64) the 6’6″ Boston Red Sox righthander looked and pitched like one on the mound. (Mantle’s only lifetime hit off the Monster was a home run.) Set the single-season strikeout record for relief pitchers (181, 1964); confidence to burn. 1965: experimented with too many pitches, lost effectiveness. 1966: After four straight years facing 500+ batters, Radatz was burned out and hanging on until 1969.

Cecil Upshaw—Developed into one of the National League’s prime relief pitchers with the 1968-69 Atlanta Braves. (2.68 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 40 saves.) 1970—Horsing around showing his slam-dunk technique on the street, Upshaw tore hand ligaments apart. Missed all 1970, was never the same pitcher again, returned for five more seasons with five teams, gone by age 32.

Rawly Eastwick—Promising cup of coffee in 1974 turned to dominant 1975-76: 2.32 ERA; 2.73 FIP; led the National League in saves back-to-back. Back-to-back World Series winner. Exponential confidence that sounded like arrogance. 1977: Contract unhappiness but overuse with the Cincinnati Reds in ’75-’76 took their toll. Played his option out, signed with the New York Yankees for five years and $1.1 million. The Yankees paid him plenty to fade away with them and three more teams before he called it a career. His arm probably surrendered before he signed that deal from almost 200 innings in 129 games in ’75-’76.

Rob Dibble—The nastiest of the 1990 Reds’ Nasty Boys bullpen, though he once swore his fellow Nasty Boy reliever Norm Charlton was really the nastiest. Once the fastest to 500 career strikeouts. Pitched hard, fumed harder. Forearm fracture in 1993; shoulder surgery costing him all 1994; gone after 1995 and a couple of subsequent aborted comeback tries. He’s become a somewhat colourful and often controversial broadcaster since.

Matt Anderson—The Tigers picked him number one in 1997. Closer of the future; saved 21 with a 2.62 FIP that proved he was pitching in a decent volume of hard luck. (4.82 ERA.) Future ruined by a torn arm muscle the following year. Gone a couple of years later at 28 and gave up the comeback ghost a couple of years after that.

Yhency Brazoban—Rookie acquired by the Dodgers in the deal sending Kevin Brown to the New York Yankees. Looked like a hammer-down setup man and then a prospective closer in two seasons. Third season: elbow injury, Tommy John surgery, gone for 2006. 2007: another arm injury, lost for the season. Journeyman from there and a now-you-see-him/now-you-don’t presence while he was at it until his career ended in 2012 after stints in Mexico and Japan.

Next. No reason to rush Singer. dark

Holland is 34. Rosenthal is 29. The easiest thing to wish them is good luck. The hardest may be good health. Somewhere in between might be wishing they and all relief pitchers draw not just on their experience but the line between hard-nosed and bull-headed.